Feeling like a fraud

Despite years of parenting, one father still feels like an imposter when he offers advice.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

A while back I was chosen as the keynote speaker at a parenting conference in New England. The search committee must have assumed that because I’ve written extensively about a life informed by seven children, I must be skilled in the art of fatherhood.

I didn’t let on that I could no more claim to be an expert parent than I could profess to be an expert mechanic, despite owning a lot of cars.

As the day of the conference approached I couldn’t keep the smirk off my face, the same one I wore as a 23-year-old new dad bopping across campus in Wisconsin, baby in one arm, book bag with Cliffs Notes in the other, pretending to know what I was doing. Since then I have navigated the decades of fatherhood in the dark, sliding fingers along gooey walls, hyperextended toes seeking out plastic toys and wet presents left by the dog. I can say without smirking that I have been a daily presence in my children’s lives from their births through first steps, scraped knees, soccer games, principal’s calls, graduations, marriages, and 14 grandchildren. But I smirk every time I hear that I’m a master dad.

Nor is this fakery limited to parenting. Despite being a career educator, I still enter classrooms and faculty meetings wondering who knows that I’m a dunce at diagramming sentences. Or that I find Proust boring. Or that I don’t understand a single paragraph of “Finnegans Wake.”

Twenty-six years ago, while teaching high school, the burly ex-football coach-turned-principal motioned me into his office. My heart seized. As I shuffled through his door he was holding an open copy of The New York Times Magazine. “Did you read this?” he barked, pointing at a column by a successful financier who confessed he was not nearly as savvy about business matters as everyone assumed. He felt like an impostor.

I nodded and smirked.

Duffy lowered his voice to a George C. Scott gravelly whisper, “Do you feel like a fraud, Lewis?”

I nodded again, heart thudding, as Duffy flashed a broad smile. “Me, too! Every day I walk into this office pretending to be a principal!”

And two decades later at that parenting conference, where I brazenly offered theories for various family problems easily solved by a good night’s sleep or a trip to the ice cream parlor, I kept waiting for my wife and kids to bust through the doors, waving arms and screaming “Don’t listen to him! He’s a phony!”

After 40 years, frankly, I’m not sure how much longer I can keep up the charade.

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